Thursday, July 9, 2009

Representing the Unrepresentable: Rupturing the Viewer's Sense of Self

This is part seven in series of posts adapted from a paper titled Representing the Unrepresentable: Locating the Political in the Viewer-Image Exchange that I read at the Aesthetics of Catastrophe symposium at Northwestern University. Each post stands alone, but the series is best read as a whole starting here.

Photographs of suffering can be consumed latently as a reinforcement of status and power in the viewer, effectively achieving two internal goals. First, the viewer is reminded of his or her general compassion and good nature by feeling the associated affect that goes along with caring or pity, and second the viewer, who is located by the photograph in a nonspecific relationship with the subject is generally absolved of personal responsibility and therefore can simultaneously experience an affirmation of power and privilege. The sale of luxury items is then entirely compatible with this exchange.

However, this audience exchange is severely disrupted when the suffering points directly back to the audience members themselves. On September 11, 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, People Magazine did what seemed impossible by creating in 18 hours 87 pages of edit focusing on the attacks. Prominently featured were images taken throughout that day. By Wednesday morning, the 12th, the magazine was on press and was entering distribution by Thursday night. There had been no time to contact advertisers and give them the opportunity to pull their ads, and they were run alongside the emerging news pictures of the attacks. Immediately there was a backlash from both the readers and the advertisers. Readers complained that juxtaposing the typical consumer advertising with the September 11 images and stories was disrespectful and distasteful. In the next issue then People President Nora McAniff was compelled to write a letter explaining the presence of advertising.

What is so significant here are not the specific images of the attacks of September 11. They were no more graphic or inherently troubling than other war and disaster images that are in circulation. The chief difference is that these are images that the readers identify with directly. This was an attack aimed directly at the readership and at their symbols and not on some remote constituency.

The effects this had on advertising were significant. Advertisers across the industry and in many publications quickly responded with complex instructions on how their ads should be placed. Many demonstrated a clear aversion to association with coverage of the attacks and their related issues and requested that their ads be run at a minimum distance away from any stories and subject that they wished to avoid.

In the case of the September 11 coverage, the images ruptured the expectations of the readers’ senses of self by showing them their vulnerability and thereby created a commodity that was incompatible with advertising. There is no greater consumer buzzkill than to remind the viewer that they too are mortal and subject to the same entropic laws as everyone else, and that world events, time and decay will eventually lead to their own physical deaths and to the end of their symbols and culture.

Further evidence of this rupture in the audience’s expectations from the publication can be seen in the basic way an audience is created. Publications are cyclical and predictable. Any publication’s audience loyalty is created and sustained through a subtle reinforcement of the audience’s own perceptions and beliefs over time. While the events depicted may be new, the attitudes, beliefs and conceptions that the audience has towards them are not. These are reinforced repeatedly over time, giving the viewer an inner sense that the publication is in sync with their own ways of organizing experience and belief. The rule is to show the reader what they already know to be true. The facts can be new, but the experience of them is not.

Continue reading with Part Eight.

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